Black Friday holiday shopping kickoff diluted by early store openings

Shoppers headed to area stores and malls for a more subdued Black Friday in Charlotte, as longer promotions, earlier Thanksgiving openings and the growth of online shopping continued to dilute the traditional kickoff of the holiday shopping season.

Full sales numbers won’t be available until later this weekend, but national retailers said they were optimistic after seeing early results from their Thanksgiving and Friday morning openings. Still, some shoppers said crowds seemed light in comparison with years past, and analysts cautioned that it’s harder than ever to judge the shopping season by Black Friday.

SouthPark mall, the region’s largest shopping center, opened at 6 p.m. Thanksgiving, two hours earlier than last year. Traffic was light, mall officials said.

“It was a little soft at first, but it definitely picked up by 8 or 9 o’clock,” said Nicole Kennon, the mall’s director of marketing and business development. She said the mall’s traffic was light again Friday morning, when the mall reopened at 6 a.m.

“I think what’s happened is there’s a bit of a shift,” Kennon said. “Those folks who used to come out Black Friday morning now come out Thanksgiving. ...We weren’t as busy this morning, but it’s picked up.”

By midday Friday, SouthPark was crowded, with drivers circling to look for parking spaces and diners perched along the walls in the crowded food court. Many shoppers were hauling bags of clothes from Nordstrom, Macy’s, Abercrombie & Fitch, and other retailers – a shift from the Thanksgiving shoppers, most of whom were after deeply discounted electronics.

“I got some jeans, a couple of shirts,” said Bryan Arvelo, 16, sitting in SouthPark with bags from Hollister and Express. “I found some stuff 40, 50 percent off.”

Instead of a single wave of consumers crashing into stores early Friday, the Black Friday shopping rush has evolved into more of a steady, rising tide, spread out for weeks before and after Thanksgiving.

Wal-Mart stretched its Black Friday promotion to five days, Amazon and Best Buy started deals last week, Target started free online shipping and had specials available online all day Thursday, even before its stores opened at 6 p.m.

National retailers said they were encouraged by the results so far – but those results themselves showed how much Black Friday has shifted away from being a single, in-store blowout shopping day. Target said its online sales were up 40 percent on Thanksgiving, setting a new single-day record for the retailer online. Wal-Mart said the day was its second-busiest online day ever, after last year’s Cyber Monday, and said 22 million shoppers visited its stores throughout the day.

The earlier opening times have continued to draw criticism from activists who say companies shouldn’t make workers stand behind cash registers and stock shelves on Thanksgiving. A union-backed group called OUR Walmart staged protests at stores in a half-dozen states, calling for higher wages and better working conditions.

Retailers have some reason to be optimistic: The National Retail Federation is forecasting that retail sales this holiday season will rise 4.1 percent from a year ago, to $617 billion.

But last year, sales on Black Friday fell 13 percent, to $9.7 billion, according to retail data firm ShopperTrak. Many of the same forces were in play: earlier opening times, strained incomes and a shift to online shopping.

“What’s Black Friday?” Marshal Cohen, retail analyst for the NPD Group, asked with a chuckle. “We used to have this tradition that we literally are watching transform in front of our eyes.”

Cohen said the earlier Black Friday discounts and deals simply shift spending between dates, rather than increase the amount spent overall. “You don’t have more relatives just because the stores opened up on Thanksgiving. You don’t have more money in your pocket just because there are longer hours,” he said.

Cohen said the deep discounts from apparel retailers, many of whom were offering discounts of 50 percent or more, are a consequence of a slow third quarter that left them with inventory to unload and sales to make up. But he said retailers have to walk a fine line between discounts to lure shoppers in now and blunting demand early.

“The more they spend upfront in the front-loaded holiday, the less they’ll spend in the next two weeks,” Cohen said. “More hours doesn’t mean more business.”

Britt Beemer, CEO of consumer analysis firm America’s Research Group, said retailers might have pushed up against the limit of how early they can open this year.

“You’re not just going to see everybody give up their Thanksgiving dinner,” Beemer said. But he said the day will likely remain an important way to generate excitement for years to come. It’s the only shopping holiday that features limited quantities of goods that people will actually wait in line for hours or days buy.

“That whole strategy is what makes it work,” Cohen said. “That tradition will never go away.”

For the die-hards, there’s no substitute for a shopping spree. Friends Missy Russell and Darlene Hathcock, both 53, said they’ve been shopping together on Black Friday for almost three decades.

Russell said this year’s Black Friday crowds seemed to be thinner than usual, and she said it had not been too difficult to find parking spaces at stores. But she said she still found bargains.

“The deals are really good this year, I think,” Russell said, shopping at Northlake Mall. She said one of the best deals she saw was at Sam’s Club in Kannapolis, which was selling $100 in iTunes cards for $80. Hathcock, of Locust, said the best bargain she found was at Kohl’s in Kannapolis, where she bought a coat that was regularly $130 for $29.

Hathcock said she was worn out but satisfied after shopping for nearly 24 hours.

“It was all worth it, and I would do it again to get the bargains that we got.”

Observer staff writer Deon Roberts contributed